Anatomy of a Viral Web Video Campaign (SSIR)

First published Nov. 11, 2016

Working with a bold nonprofit organization, #NoRedButton, and a host of skilled partners, we recently oversaw the creation and release of a certifiably viral advocacy video that highlighted the dangers of the US stance on nuclear weapons as an election issue. The video has now surpassed 1.8 million views on different social media platforms; received endorsements from celebrities such as Cher, Richard Branson, and R.E.M. band members; and drawn the attention of the effort’s intended political target. Most importantly, it has brought thousands of new supporters and new funds to #NoRedButton.

As web video rises in importance as an advocacy tool, both for cause communications and for fundraising, more and more nonprofits will be tempted to try their hand at using new media and new platforms. Whatever your cause, getting the approach right is especially important for this sector, as most organizations simply do not have the budgets necessary to produce dozens of high quality videos and run “hit or miss” attempts to gain traction.

Having had the inside track on the creation and deployment of a highly shared and highly viewed spot — alongside our experience with previous online video campaigns — we can point to several important success factors. In the online cause-marketing context, these must-have components include a storytelling approach that plugs into deep social currents and the competitive positioning of content, through tone and style, to stand out from similar messages. On the distribution side, the most efficient and far-reaching campaigns we’ve seen are backed by a promotion strategy that mobilizes supporter networks to push them out.

Standing out above the noise

Most cause communicators who spend time skimming social media feeds can confirm that — even when there is not an election — the online advocacy space is awash in information spots, fundraising appeals, petition drives, and other calls to action. Understanding this competitive environment, especially from the point of view of your audience, is an essential design consideration for those trying to create messages that will break through. Given the clutter, #NoRedButton knew it would have to create a novel and uncompromising take on its subject to stand out.

While a lot of people are writing about the power of storytelling to differentiate advocacy campaigns and engage supporters, most messages still play to our intellect rather than our emotions. For this particular spot, the team tried to tap into deep-seated emotions tied to empathy toward the suffering of others and indignation toward those who threaten to inflict that suffering. Using oppositional framing, we positioned Donald Trump’s statements on his readiness to use nuclear weapons against historical declassified US Air Force footage of Hiroshima survivors. Needless to say, the results were dramatic and disturbing, but they also very effectively in drew people’s attention to the issue.

Beyond direct emotional appeal, the most powerful advocacy messages also find resonance with deeper social currents that are already mobilizing networks of supporters on parallel issues. In this case, the polarizing election race had galvanized progressives in their desire to block Trump’s run at the presidency and the general worldview that his campaign represented. Situating our issue as another front of this struggle, we rallied vast networks of highly motivated supporters and opened fertile ground for mass engagement.

Finally, when it comes to differentiation, narrative is part of the solution, but visual style and treatment do the rest. While other campaign ads, including those in the same issue space, adopted a sober journalistic style and built their visuals out of news clips, our video partner’s choice to employ a stylized treatment of all visuals, along with #NoRedButton’s decision to pull no punches, ensured that this video stood out from the flow of other, blander election messages shared daily.

Leveraging networks for distribution and engagement

Before releasing the campaign video, #NoRedButton took time to set up an “ambassador machine” that called out to its members and recruited the willing as promoters. Starting with a list of “high action-takers” from the organization’s main supporter base, it prepped this internal team via a series of email alerts, asking supporters to devote their time to sharing and promoting the video when it came out. This effort activated a crucial first push when the video went live, which created considerable peer-to-peer sharing momentum.

Focusing promotion efforts mainly on Facebook also helped #NoRedButton access support networks more easily. It was easy to find and connect with Facebook communities that had hundreds of thousands of supporters, and the ease of sharing a video already uploaded to the platform allowed for quick uptake by influential groups and personalities.

To give the video an extra boost, #NoRedButton also wisely invested in paid promotion on Facebook. While paid promotion of messaging that hasn’t yet found traction can have disappointing results, applying a paid push to content that is already receiving good natural engagement can greatly increase views and shares. In addition to social network advertising spends, #NoRedButton enlisted professional help with outreach to blogs and influencers that could direct new audiences to the campaign. In the end, while a good share of the video’s generated reach was organic, this paid promotion significantly drove up the overall numbers.

Good strategy pays for itself

In principle, all nonprofits working on issues of national concern should be able to benefit from the massive but relatively inexpensive reach that web video campaigning provides. Getting there, however, demands an organizational commitment to do powerful storytelling, commission bold creative, and to involve supporters as active participants in the rollout.

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Progressive power builder. Founding bottom-liner of Blueprints for Change + Senior Strategist at NetChange Consulting. More bio stuff: